By Stephanie Scully
Many people warmly embrace the holiday season as a time to spend with loved ones and participate in gift-giving. That gleam of delight in a child’s eye may be what we have waited all year to enjoy and with the holiday season approaching, your thoughts may be turning to shopping for toys and gifts as well. You’ll want to get the children in your life their favorite toys, and there are thousands of toys to choose from in stores and online. As many of us do every year, you may get carried away by the holiday spirit and become vulnerable to advertising blitzes for the latest, “greatest” gifts. It is easy to be lulled into that false sense of security that no responsible retailer would dare to sell unsafe toys, especially around the holidays. But, before you make those purchases remember to consider the safety and age-range of the toys.
Unfortunately, many toys are unsafe, in particular for very young children, and they are not pulled off of the market until there have been documented instances that they have caused serious injuries, even deaths. In 2008, emergency rooms treated an estimated 235,300 toy-related injuries, most of which were to the head and face and included lacerations, contusions, or abrasions. In 2007 alone, toymakers recalled over 19 million toys worldwide because of safety concerns such as lead paint and small magnets. In 2005, there were over 200,000 toy-related injuries.
Why is December Safe Toys and Gifts Awareness Month?
Millions of toys are out there, and hundreds of new ones hit the stores each year. Toys are supposed to be fun and are an important part of any child’s development. But each year, scores of kids are treated in hospital emergency departments for toy-related injuries. Choking is a particular risk for kids ages 3 or younger, because they tend to put objects in their mouths. So, each December, Prevent Blindness America sponsors “Safe Toys and Gifts Month” to remind consumers that careful shopping for toys and gifts can maintain the magic of the holidays and prevent them from turning tragic. The most popular reminder is, “to prevent injuries, choose toys that are safe for the age of the child. Look for labels to help you judge which toys might not be safe, especially for infants and children under age three. For children of all ages, consider if the toys are suited to their skills and abilities.”
Prevent Blindness America recommends that shoppers always:
- Buy age-appropriate toys.
- Look for toys and other gifts that meet American Society for Testing and Materials (ASTM) safety standards.
- Review warnings on the toy’s box.
- Avoiding shooting toys that have pieces that shoot or fly off.
- Remember that BB guns, air guns, and paintball guns are not really toys. (Sorry, Ralphie, your Mom was right. They can shoot your eye out.)
Who is at Risk for Suffering an Injury Related to an Unsafe Toy or Gift?
Children under 3 years of age have contributed to the majority of emergency visits for toy-related injuries. However, with the ever-growing import business and economical strain on households, more and more toys and gifts are being manufactured overseas, which puts a heavy strain on federal regulation and monitoring agencies.
Every year, thousands of young children under age 14 suffer serious eye injuries or even blindness from toys and gifts. Parents are urged to ask themselves if a toy is right for a child’s ability and age, show children how to use toys safely, watch them as they play, and fix or throw away broken toys.
What are Manufacturers’ Responsibilities to Consumers?
Manufacturers follow certain guidelines and label most new toys for specific age groups. However, even within the child’s age range, toys suitable for one child might not be suitable for another child. It’s good to keep in mind that younger children, if they’re not being watched closely, may play with toys purchased for older children. Perhaps the most important thing a parent can do is to supervise play.
How are Toys Regulated in the United States?
The U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) closely monitors and regulates toys. Any toys made in — or imported into — the United States after 1995 must comply with CPSC standards. Here are some general guidelines to keep in mind when toy-shopping:
- Toys made of fabric should be labeled as flame resistant or flame retardant
- Stuffed toys should be washable
- Painted toys should be covered with lead-free paint
- Art materials should say nontoxic
- Crayons and paints should say ASTM D-4236 on the package, which means that they’ve been evaluated by the American Society for Testing and Materials
How Do You Select Safe Toys?
Choosing safe toys for children can seem complicated and frustrating for parents. Most of the time, safe toys are dependent upon your child’s age and/or level of development. Having children of various ages living in the same household can further complicate matters and increase safety concerns. It is important for parents to supervise children, especially those under 3 years of age, during play. Keeping age-appropriate toys separated and out of reach of younger children may help enhance child safety. Below are general safe toy selection tips for children of all ages.
Here are some guidelines for choosing safe toys for all ages:
- Steer clear of older toys, even hand-me-downs from friends and family. Those toys might have sentimental value and are certainly cost-effective, but they may not meet current safety standards and may be so worn from play that they can break and become hazardous.
- Make sure a toy isn’t too loud for your child. The noise of some rattles, squeak toys, and musical or electronic toys can be as loud as a car horn — even louder if a child holds it directly to the ears — and can contribute to hearing damage.
- Look for toys that have a solid design and a sturdy construction—toys that won’t break, crush, or be pulled apart easily.
- Check to see if the instructions are clear.
- Read the labels to see if there are any fire hazards.
- Look for labels that assure you the toys have passed a safety inspection—ASTM means the toy has met the American Society for Testing and Materials standards.
- Avoid toys with rigid points, spikes, rods, or dangerous edges.
- Check lenses and frames on children’s sunglasses, which can break and cause eye injuries.
- -Buy toys that can withstand impact and do not break into dangerous shards.
The American Academy of Pediatrics urges parents to look for toys that are sturdy, contain nontoxic materials, and don’t make loud noise. In addition, the Academy recommends that:
- All electric toys be approved by Underwriters Laboratory (UL)
- Homeowners avoid purchasing trampolines
- Children under 16 avoid riding on four-wheel all-terrain vehicles (ATVs), and that three-wheel ATVs should be banned
What Toys Are Unsafe?
Along with knowing what kinds of toys to choose, it’s important to know what kinds of toys to avoid in order to prevent possible injuries. For example, do not choose:
- Toys with small parts and sharp edges and points
- Guns and other toys that shoot flying objects and make loud noises
- Crayons and markers that are not labeled nontoxic
- Toys that could shatter into fragments if broken
- Toys with ropes and cords
- Electric toys with heating elements
One of the most neglected safety concerns is toys which are so loud that they can cause hearing loss. These include:
- Cap guns
- Musical toys
- Toy phones
- Horns and sirens
- Some squeaky rubber toys
Such toys are capable of generating noise up to 120 decibels, which is as loud as a jet at take-off. When held next to the ear, they can cause pain and permanent hearing loss.
During the past few years, the Consumer Product Safety Commission has identified many hazardous toys, most of which weren’t recalled until they had been on the shelves for many months. A few examples include:
- Toys with small magnets, which can come loose and be swallowed.
- Toys with easily removable lithium button batteries that also can be swallowed.
- Toys with lead paint.
- Children’s jewelry containing toxic metals such as lead and cadmium.
“Dangerous Toys”–Many non-toys also can tempt kids. It’s important to keep them away from:
- sharp scissors
- balloons (uninflated or broken balloons can be choking hazards)
Safe Toys for Infants, Toddlers, and Preschoolers
Always read labels to make sure a toy is appropriate for a child’s age. Guidelines published by the CPSC and other groups can help you make those buying decisions. Still, use your own best judgment — and consider your child’s temperament, habits, and behavior whenever you buy a new toy. You may think that a child who’s advanced in comparison to peers can handle toys meant for older kids. But the age levels for toys are determined by safety factors, not intelligence or maturity. Here are some age-specific guidelines to keep in mind:
- Toys should be large enough – at least 1¼” (3 centimeters) in diameter and 2¼” (6 centimeters) in length – so that they can’t be swallowed or lodged in the windpipe. A small-parts tester, or choke tube, can determine if a toy is too small. These tubes are designed to be about the same diameter as a child’s windpipe. If an object fits inside the tube, then it’s too small for a young child. If you can’t find one of these products, a toilet paper roll can be used for the same purpose.
- Avoid marbles, coins, balls, and games with balls that are 1.75 inches (4.4 centimeters) in diameter or less because they can become lodged in the throat above the windpipe and restrict breathing.
- Battery-operated toys should have battery cases that secure with screws so that kids cannot pry them open. Batteries and battery fluid pose serious risks, including choking, internal bleeding, and chemical burns.
- When checking a toy for a baby or toddler, make sure it’s unbreakable and strong enough to withstand chewing. Also, make sure it doesn’t have:
- sharp ends or small parts like eyes, wheels, or buttons that can be pulled loose
- small ends that can extend into the back of the mouth
- strings longer than 7 inches (18 centimeters)
- parts that could become pinch points for small fingers
- Most riding toys can be used once a child is able to sit up well while unsupported – but check with the manufacturer’s recommendation. Riding toys like rocking horses and wagons should come with safety harnesses or straps and be stable and secure enough to prevent tipping.
- Hand-me-down and homemade toys should be carefully evaluated. They may not have undergone testing for safety. Do not give your infant painted toys made before 1978; they may have paint that contains lead.
- Stuffed animals and other toys that are sold or given away at carnivals, fairs, and in vending machines are not required to meet safety standards. Check carnival toys carefully for loose parts and sharp edges before giving them to your infant.
The Consumer Product Safety Commission offers these tips to ensure that toys are age appropriate:
- Ages 3 and under. Avoid small toys that can fit inside a choke test cylinder or no-choke testing tube, which measures 1¼ inches wide by 2¼ inches long; never let children of any age play with uninflated or broken balloons; avoid marbles, balls and games with balls with a diameter of 1¾ inches or less; avoid toys with small magnets, magnetic pieces or loose magnets that can be swallowed.
- Ages 3-5. Avoid toys that have sharp edges and points, or are made of thin, brittle plastic that can break into small, jagged pieces; inspect art materials such as crayons and paint sets for the designation “ASTM D-4236,” which ensures that the products have been reviewed by a toxicologist and labeled, if necessary, with cautionary information; also avoid toys with magnets in this age group.
- Ages 6-12. Older children should be taught to keep their toys away from younger siblings. Any toy guns should have a brightly colored barrel so they cannot be mistaken for a real gun.